Scripture: Acts 9: 1-9 and John 21: 1-14
Saul, or Paul – Saul if you’re speaking Hebrew, Paul if you’re speaking Greek – was headed to Damascus to root out this pesky new movement, this pesky new Jewish thing that was playing fast and loose with the Law that was so precious to Saul. I mean, any fool could see the problems! There were Jews and Gentiles together in this thing, eating together! The whole sense of identity, the whole system of faithfulness and national character was at stake. It made Saul spitting angry. What are they thinking?
And then, out of the blue, on the Damascus road, Saul gets hit by… by what? A vision? A realization? The risen Christ? His whole life and thinking come apart. He left Jerusalem a confident, in-charge leader, clear about his duty and able to get it done. He arrived in Damascus blind, humbled, led by the hand, so stricken he could not eat.
There are some who would shout such a vision down, who would refuse to hear a revelation that so contradicted their life’s work. Not Saul. He paid attention – he found that the vision rang true – and it broke him.
And it was also the beginning of something new, something that has shaped the entire Christian church through the ages. Saul repented: he turned his life around. And both he and the church came alive in a way no one could have imagined.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn is sent to the Gulag. In his suffering, his old life passes away, but somehow he discovers humanity and hope. Nelson Mandela is sent to Robben Island, and the military commander passes away there – but decades later, one of the world’s great statesmen emerges from the prison.
I’m pretty sure, in this life, that we all fall. We all get knocked off our horses, we all get brought up short. Marriage, work, parenting, health, faith – we find ourselves in a place where we can no longer stand the way things are. Our falling, we might say, forces change upon us – but you know I don’t think so. Our falling gives us an opportunity for change, an opportunity for growth, an opportunity to stand up and take responsibility and rise to the challenge. Sometimes we grow gradually – but sometimes we “fall upward.” We die and rise.
What my spiritual director said to me after I burned out is, I believe, incredibly important. He encouraged me to give up – to stop doing what wasn’t working. But, he said, pay very close attention to what happens next.
- What happens after burnout?
- What happens to your experience of God after you (supposedly) lose your faith? Did you in fact lose your faith? Or is it just changing?
- What happens after you discover you’re an addict?
- What happens after the profitability of oil goes down and doesn’t come back up?
- What happens after you look at your spouse and say, “we just can’t keep going like this”?
- What happens after we realize that the church as we know it is unsustainable?
What happens after?
Maybe resurrection. Maybe new life. Maybe a springtime resurgence. Why not? I know it doesn’t feel good. But that’s probably a necessary part of the process, too. What feels like failure might just be the beginning of transformation. What feels like losing faith might just be a huge step of growth. What feels like falling might just be falling upward.
“I give up. I’m going fishing,” says Simon Peter. “We’ll go with you,” say the others. And after a long dark night of fruitless fishing, they head for home, and as the dawn breaks, they see someone waiting for them on the beach. And it begins again, on a whole new level.
p.s. Check out the book, Falling Upward by Richard Rohr